The Evolution Debate: Creationist Rhetoric

I’ve pretty much gone through the arguments against evolution I planned to debunk in my various posts. (See the first post in this series here.) To be sure, there’s a lot more material out there, but I’ve addressed the specific things I wanted. If you want to learn more about the science, I recommend the Talk Origins Index, which addresses many more creationist claims in great detail.

However, I have a little more I want to say about the rhetoric used by creationists in these debates because they have a definite tendency to mock, belittle, or dismiss evolutionists and their positions. And yes, the meanness can definitely happen on both sides. I’ve written before about Kent Hovind and Aron Ra insulting each other in their debate last year. But this post particularly focuses on the creationist side. Granted, these aren’t actual arguments against evolution. At most, they’re spurious attacks on the attitude of evolutionists, but the point is, they’re distractions from the substance of the debate and generally tend to make creationists look foolish. So let’s take a look at some of them.

“Evolutionists say…” OR Evolutionism says…”

This first one is kind of a weird case. Many evolutionists complain about it not being a valid term, but I’ve been using it myself because…how else are you going to label the theory’s proponents conveniently? And I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that. Many scientists will try to depersonalize it to something like “evolution says” to try to make it clear that it’s the theory itself saying that—the actual science and not just people. But when you’re talking about how people talk in a debate, like I am, you have to talk about the people.

Thus, I’ve been using “evolutionists” in this series because it’s a succinct way of referencing people who are on the opposite side of the creationism argument, and really, there’s no other word that works. It’s not “scientists” because plenty of laypeople both understand and accept evolution. It’s not “nonbelievers” because lots of Christians believe in evolution. It’s not “naturalists” for the same reason. It’s certainly not “Darwinists” because Darwin isn’t remotely the whole story anymore. “Evolution believers” might be closer, but that’s too clunky. “Evolutionists” is an easy shorthand, but it can mask the fact that evolution is not a belief system. It’s a scientific theory, and yes, that’s a bit of a trite cliche itself, but it references the fact that it is something qualitatively different from faith—that evolution stands on a well-substantiated body of objective evidence whereas true faith neither wants nor needs this. That’s not to say either one is deficient, rather that it doesn’t make sense to compare them in that way.

Anyway, this has turned into a tangent. My point is that I’m actually okay with the creationist term “evolutionism.” It’s just that you have to be careful that it doesn’t distort the audience’s understanding of what evolution is.

“Evidences for Creation”

This is a pure distraction, and many evolutionists just gloss over it, but I find it hard to ignore…Why do creationists keep using “evidences” as a plural of “evidence”?! Yes, it’s sometimes used in technical contexts. Yes, it’s attested in Shakespeare and all that. The fact remains that in modern English, “evidence” is a perfectly good plural of “evidence,” and you almost never see it with the ‘s’ except in Christian apologetics. It’s Christianese, and it’s risking turning off non-Christians before you ever get to the substance of your argument. It may be valid English, but using it is going to make you look unprofessional when there are more widely-used alternatives.

“Were you there?” AND Historical science

Both of these things say that we can’t know for sure what happened in the past because we personally weren’t there to witness it, nor was any other reliable source (except God as the author of the Bible). The problem is, this isn’t an argument. It’s a thought-terminating cliche. It’s something you can say that prevents you from having to address the merits of an argument without actually refuting it. It doesn’t sound convincing; it just sounds flippant.

(Okay, yes, this is basically what God said to Job. See above about the difference between science and faith. There is absolutely a place for the theological debate, but it should not be conflated with the scientific one.)

Now, the “proper” use of a term like “historical science” is to say, “We don’t have proof that X happened because no one was around to see it, so we only really have circumstantial evidence to go on.” This is theoretically fine, but at this point, it should be a debate between two sides about who has the objectively stronger evidence, and you can read several of my earlier posts to see how that goes.

I think there’s a simpler solution, though. This rhetoric is why several of my Questions for Creationists begin with the words, “Regardless of whether it actually happened…” Against creationists, I believe it’s often more defensible to ask whether evolution could happen, because it avoids this cliche, but is still very much up for debate.

Millions of years

This cliche, maybe even more than “Were you there?” is perhaps the most derisive of the creationists’ rhetoric. Kent Hovind especially likes to says “millions of years” in a mocking tone as if it’s too ridiculous to be worth addressing, but I think it embodies a lot of the problems of the creationist attitude. Yes, at its root, it’s down to Biblical literalism straight-up, but I feel like there’s an attitude built up around it by the notion that so much of science is wrong and biased against religion, and Hovind’s mocking tone is part of that.

For the particular cliche of “millions of years,” part of it is that it’s an easy shorthand for everything they see as contradicting the creationist narrative. You don’t have to explain what millions of years means for most people to understand it, where you might need to for other aspects of evolution. It’s a simple matter of one side saying Earth is thousands of years old and the other side saying it’s millions or billions of years old, and only one of them can be right.

However, another part of it is an attitude of “Isn’t thousands of years enough for you? That’s a really long time.” And there is some truth to this. It’s the same sentiment by which we say, “If we’re alone in the universe, it seems like an awful waste of space.” The thing is, we’ve already got millions of light-years. Most creationists accept those huge distances because we can measure them in the present (sort of), and, you know—distance light travels in a year, anyone? Millions of years is kind of obvious if you accept that.

However, the biggest issue for me is when Hovind seems to criticize evolutionists for using “millions of years” as a buzzword to sound impressive or convincing or just plain smarter. Personally, I feel like this is an insult to scientists on a deeper level—an emotional level rather than just an intellectual one. The reason is that in my experience, we say “millions of years” in awestruck tones not as a rhetorical point, but because we want other people to share in our wonder at the vastness of the universe. The fact is, thousands of years isn’t enough for us! But this isn’t a bug; it’s a feature, when we can imagine so much greater

I could go on more about this, but I don’t want to get too heavy-handed about it. Instead, I will skip to the final word in this series—another question, of sorts—for which I will defer to the late, great Carl Sagan in Pale Blue Dot, who makes this point far better than I could:

“How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed’? Instead they say, ‘No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.’ A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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1 Response to The Evolution Debate: Creationist Rhetoric

  1. spawneedave says:

    “Evolutionist believer”, makes me think of all the times creationists have asked me, “Do you believe in evolution?”, to which I often reply, “I don’t believe in evolution, I understand it!”. I often then ask the creationist back, “Do you understand gravity?”. The reality is that there is probably more peer reviewed studies on evolution, than gravity, yet very few people doubt gravity.

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